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Police Arrest Powers Under Fire



Attorney General Bob McDonnell says a ruling by the Supreme Court of Virginia has created "an absurd situation" that blocks police officers from arresting and detaining people who commit misdemeanor offenses.

Last week McDonnell asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the state court's ruling. His office has also attempted to undo the ruling through new state legislation, which passed a panel of lawmakers at the General Assembly Feb. 2.

The situation stems from the case of David Lee Moore. Portsmouth Police arrested and detained Moore for driving on a suspended license in 2003. When police searched him they found 16 grams of crack cocaine.

The problem: Technically, police are only allowed to search people once they're under arrest. But because it's a minor misdemeanor to drive on a suspended license, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that police officers had illegally detained Moore.

Under state law, the court ruled, Moore should have been ticketed and released from custody. Therefore, it was an illegal arrest, and the state was barred from using the drugs they found as evidence in court.

The Attorney General's Office says in a memo that preventing police from arresting people for misdemeanors sets up a dangerous precedent. Officers contend that misdemeanors such as simple assault or trespassing often lead to bigger charges, such as possession of weapons or drugs.

Opponents argue that officers shouldn't be allowed to make arrests and detain people at their discretion for minor misdemeanors.

The bill backed by McDonnell's office, which gives officers the ability to make misdemeanor arrests, passed the House Courts of Justice Committee last week. During the hearing on the bill, Delegate Ward Armstrong, D-Martinsville, called it the "biggest policy change this session" to go through the committee.

Jane Chittom, who heads the state Appellate Defender Office in Richmond and argued the Moore case, told the committee that the ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court does not tie the officer's hands completely. She says it leaves exceptions that allow officers to arrest people who pose a danger to themselves or others, or who refuse to stop whatever misdemeanor activity they are engaged in.

The bill was scheduled to go before the House of Delegates Feb. 4, after press time. S

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